Friday Live in Studio 89: Niagara's Country Music Springboard
By David DeRocco
Cracking the playlist of a big corporate radio station as an indie artist these days is about as difficult as trying to hold onto your job at Bell Media. Luckily for promising young country stars hoping to get their big break in the music business, there’s at least one country radio station willing to put its airtime on the line to support Canadian talent.
Friday mornings on Niagara’s new Country 89, co-hosts Rob Leclerc and Janel Steeper offer up some of their prime morning airtime to help foster the dreams of aspiring indie country stars with a unique musical feature.
“We call it Friday Live in Studio 89,” says Janel, one-half of Niagara’s freshest new morning radio team. “It’s great because it provides a little bit of variety in our morning show. Fridays typically are a little bit more fun, we’re getting ready for the weekend. So I love having the new artists coming in.”
For the past six months, “Friday Live in Studio 89” has been giving independent country musicians from across the greater Niagara area a rare opportunity to not only play their songs in the studio, but to have their performance broadcast live to the station’s ever-expanding regional country audience; no edits, no delays, no AutoTune – just old-school live performance direct from the studio floor.
The feature was the brainchild of Leclerc, a long-time country music host who just happens to be a drummer on the side. He understands how fortunate he is as a host on a commercial radio station to be able to provide such an incredible forum for self-exposure to new country artists.
“The best part is allowing local artists to have a place to play,” said Rob, who earned his country cred working for the now defunct Country 95.3 in Hamilton. “A lot of times local artists don’t have a place where they can showcase their music. Being a musician and a lover of music, I thought I’ve got a great venue to give these folks a place to come and play their music.”
The feature wouldn’t be possible without corporate support from a management team with the vision to see the long-term value of an investment in new talent rather than maximizing commercial revenues by selling it. Company president Pat St. John says “Friday Live in Studio 89” is a key part of the station’s strategy to ensure a healthy future for both country music in the market and Country 89.
“It’s imbedded in the research we did in the market when we were looking to add a second radio station here,” says St. John. “The passion for country music here is so strong that we found if we were going to highlight local talent, that it would be best to put it on the air. We originally thought of doing a competition once or twice a year. But then we realized the answer was to actually put this kind of talent on the biggest stage in Niagara, which was on the air.”
To facilitate both the new station and the live music feature, the station went about building a new studio inside their Forks Road West location on Welland’s south side, where the ghosts of long-departed AM country station 1470 CHOW still linger. They also made the critical decision to put the feature in the highly rated morning show rather than bury it deep in evening or overnight programming.
That decision has proved to be beneficial to a string of artists who’ve made the early morning trek to Welland with gear in tow to capitalize on the opportunity. On Friday the 13th, for example, amidst the chaos of a Dover-bound “Biker Breakfast” being hosted by brother station GIANT FM, Leclerc and Steeper played host to a performance by Shae Dupuy, an angelic beauty with a knack for writing catchy country hooks who came in on a red-eye drive from Cambridge.
“These kinds of events are so important because this industry, especially country music industry, is so built on relationships,” said the west-coast born 19-year-old, whose video for her current indie single “Drink About It” is receiving airplay on CMT. “It seems like it’s a big industry but it’s really very small and everyone is tight knit group. You have to come in and meet these people to get anywhere in the industry. So for them to put us on the air and provide the opportunity it means the world to up and coming artists. You’re looking for your break anywhere you can get it and you’re looking to squeeze your way into the industry, so they’re giving you an inch in. It’s great, I love it.”
Amidst the bikers, back bacon and boots flying around the studio, Dupuy delivered two flawless acoustic performances; the first, her current single “Drink About It” and the second, a sneak peak of her Wizard of Oz inspired heartbreak song, “Tin Man.” For Dupuy and guitarist Dave Kirby, who drove in from Etobicoke, taking advantage of showcase opportunities like the one provided by “Live In Studio 89” is simply a necessary part of her career development.
“It’s definitely a learning curve,” says Dupuy, who based on her performance is an artist whose star is rapidly rising. “Everything we’ve been doing up until this point has been all about developing and getting a steady foundation built, so that when the time comes and I do get a hit song or get to open up for somebody who could jumpstart my career that I’m ready for it. Definitely seeing how this (Studio 89) works and seeing the work you have to put into it is important as a new artist.”
With no end to the line-up of artists ready to participate, “Friday Live in Studio 89” will continue to showcase names like Daniel Romano, Rich Cloak, Alessia Cole and Dupuy alongside the station’s regular rotation of Blake, Miranda, Brad and Dallas. For Leclerc the music fan, that means seeing a lot of fresh new faces with varying degrees of talent.
“So many artists have come through you lose track of them all. Some need a bit of work, some are trying to find their musical footing, but we get a lot of good talent in here.”
For Leclerc and his partner the radio hosts trying to deliver a stellar morning show each week, there’s another agenda in having talent in to perform.
“You don’t have to prep a half hour of radio, you just open the mic and away they go,” he laughs. “Like Janel said, it’s nice, easy, fun and entertaining. And it’s something that’s not happening anywhere else in the market but here.”